Eating in Vietnam is a pleasure. Whether you eat at someone’s home or in a restaurant, the food is fresh, healthy and delicious. The woman of the house goes to the market daily, and the fresh fruit and veg is eaten that same day. Many things are eaten raw, while some are fried, and there are always various varieties of fish sauce mixtures and chillies to complement the meal.
Meals are often very hands on, with everyone sharing several communal dishes placed in the centre of the table or on the floor. You can use hands or chopsticks. They wrap things in rice paper, and dip them in fish sauce. Many times my food wraps are made for me, either as a mark of honour or because they don’t trust me to do it right – I haven’t quite worked it out yet. This communal atmosphere means that eating is a family activity and a way of bonding between people. As I love food, it seems I fit right in.
The table etiquette is also very relaxed. You eat as soon as the meal is on the table, even if all the dishes are not present. You don’t wait for everyone else before you start. There is usually a soup which you have first, and then you can pick and choose the other foods as and when you want. There is no pressure to eat everything on the table, and I think because of the shared dishes, you only eat until you are full. Despite eating huge amounts, I have lost weight, as the food is so healthy. I have forgotten what hunger feels like.
Vietnamese people never snack on chocolate or crisps. Their drinks and desserts are very sweet: think creme caramels with coconut sauce, and condensed milk with everything. The other day, I watched a friend mash up an avocado in a glass and add two tablespoons of sugar. He handed it to me, and I was a little dubious. Avocados are savoury! But I tried it, and it was delicious. Soon the whole glass was gone.
The most striking difference between my eating habits and the Vietnamese is the way they think about food. I have a vague idea about eating a balanced diet: carbohydrates, protein, fibre, vegetables etc with each meal, but they know what each food does to your body. So many times, one of the family members has pointed to a type of food and said “That is papaya. It is good if a woman is low on breast milk” or “These duck embryos increase your sex drive”. A friend has a great interest in this. He says that this information is from the past, but that he has checked it on the internet and most of the time it is accurate. It makes sense to eat natural things due to their effects on your body, but I just never think past how something tastes.
There is also not so much squeamishness about food: they eat every part of an animal and they enjoy it all. This obviously comes from a time when they needed to eat everything as food was scarce. I never thought I would say this but pig ears are surprisingly delicious – once you forget that they are pigs ears of course!